Chatting with LaBan

We missed a week of rounding up of Craig LaBan’s Tuesday chat, but we’re back with the highlights.

Despite his best efforts to coax the proletariat into a discussion of Mardi Gras and the lack of Creole delights to be found in Philadelphia, the chatters had other ideas: Osteria, sushi buffets and Philly Mag’s list of 50 best restaurants.

In response to those who dared to question the primacy of Osteria, we have a deft slap in the face to the haters from La LaBan:

As everyone knows, I’ve been a big fan of Marc Vetri’s and Osteria. And you can see my review for the reasons in detail. That said, I recieve a surprising amount of mail from people like you, who simply don’t get Osteria. I don’t know you, Meghan, but I don’t get those people. Yes, Osteria is expensive, and the portions are on the small side, but it is such a refreshing expression of authentic and rustic Italian flavors in an accessible space – we simply didn’t have anything like it here before. It is quite a different experience from the red gravy palaces of yore, and maybe that’s jarring. Or maybe the build up has been too great.

Take note, easily-jarred Osteria-haters! You have felt his wrath! Fortunately, we’re fans of the Broad Street pizza place, so we’re still able to bask in the benevolent warmth of the big guy.

The real news here might be that the chatters convinced him to visit suburban sushi buffet Minado. We’ve been and it’s certainly an experience.

Dinner Conversations [philly.com]

Ted’s On Main

Ted’s On Main
Craig LaBan can be a demanding reviewer but never more so than when the topic is Louisiana cuisine. So it speaks volumes when he finds a place he likes. And he has found such a spot in Medford New Jersey’s Ted’s on Main. That’s not to say he didn’t have any complaints.

But those were exceptions for a restaurant that consistently delivered entrees worthy of prices in the mid-$20s, making Ted’s easily one of South Jersey’s best new restaurants. You’d never suspect it from the low-key storefront exterior, the former Cafe Noelle, where Iwachiw hangs a cartoony chef sign that looks more like something for the front of a pizzeria.

Two Bells – Very Good

Ted’s on Main [Philadelphia Inquirer]
Ted’s On Main [Official Site]

St. Stephens Green

St. Stephens Green’s chef, Ben McNamara certainly has a fan in Craig LaBan. LaBan gushes about McNamara who he calls, “one of the most consistent cooks I’ve covered over the last decade.”

Longtime McNamara-lytes will recognize all of the chef’s old favorites, reflecting a blend of his classic European style with some of his bar-food updates.

There are his delicate risotto crabcakes, with sweet lumps of crustacean molded into pillows of rice, set over basil butter sauce. Toothsome homemade gnocchi come in porcini cream. And then, there is the chicken cheesesteak, an open-faced baguette toasted with brie, then piled high with tenderly braised poultry, oyster mushrooms and shallots.

2 Bells – Very Good

St. Stephens Green [Philadelphia Inquirer]

Chatting with LaBan

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The Inquirer’s esteemed food critic Craig LaBan was en fuego in this week’s online chat! We always love to see how he’ll handle the innocent questions of the proletariat. Woe to the chatter who dares to ask him for a ‘special dinner recommendation’! We’ve highlighted the zingers after the jump.

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2 Bells To Cochon

Cochon Duck Breast
Craig LaBan reviews Cochon, the French bistro named for a pig on the border of Queen Village and Bella Vista in South Philadelphia.

Cochon’s best entree, though, may in fact have been the duck breast. Its skin was seared to a cracker-crisp edge around rosy moons of tender meat, which came fanned over mahogany gravy next to a ragout of white beans. Of course, those beans are larded with nubs of pork and bacon, which not only amped the flavor, but drove home a recurring theme: Even when the poultry plates fly high, pig rules the heart of dinner at Cochon.

Two Bells – Very Good

Cochon [Philadelphia Inquirer]
Cochon [Official Site]

Blue Pear Bistro

Blue Pear Bistro
A historic general store next to the Dilworthtown Inn is now the Blue Pear Bistro and is serving up casual comfort food updates from former Palette chef David Fogleman.

David Fogleman can still cook. And a few years of maturity have even allowed him to execute an affordable bistro menu (with virtually all items under $20) without sacrificing a commitment to diligent technique, quality ingredients, or the uncanny ability to create dishes that surprise.

Two Bells – Very Good

Blue Pear Bistro [Philadelphia Inquirer]
Blue Pear Bistro [Official Site]

The Year In Bells

Osteria
Craig LaBan looks back at the year in restaurants in Philadelphia bumping up the ratings for three restaurants, Rae to 3 bells and Brandywine Prime and L’Oca were both bumped up to 2 bells. Jose Garces was named chef of the year and Osteria got the nod for restaurant of the year.

The bells: One more time [Philadelphia Inquirer]

Shundeez Gets Two Bells

Craig LaBan visits Shundeez in Chestnut Hill for some affordable and tasty Persian food.

Kabobs are this menu’s best bets, which makes sense, considering it was named after a town in Iran renowned for its kabobs.

All are carefully cooked over a grill that avoids getting too hot, and come over a bed of fluffy basmati, topped with a stripe of saffron-tinged grains and melted butter.

But the secret to these meats, it seems, is in the onion juice, which provides milky zest to marinades without the onion’s pungent zap. It seems to amplify the saffron and otherwise simple seasonings in the moist chicken kabob. It also lends extra depth to a filet mignon that is flattened and grilled along the wide skewer (ours was a bit overcooked, but still tasty).

Two Bells – Very Good

Shundeez [Philadelphia Inquirer]
Shundeez Restaurant [Official Site]

City Grange

City Grange

Photo by Ryan Charles

Craig LaBan puts City Grange through the ringer and finds the restaurant at the Westin suffers from careless cooking and an overly ambitious menu writer.

That second visit, indeed, showed a genuine glimmer of what City Grange is hoping to become. The hard peach had been replaced by a hard pear (at least it was in season). And the kitchen served a handful of memorable dishes.

The macaroni and cheese was as good an update to the classic as I’ve had, tanged with good Pennsylvania Noble cheddar and snuggled beneath a deeply crunchy crumb crust. The trendy Angus burger sliders were borderline delicious, with good meat topped in three pleasantly distinct ways. The Alaskan salmon was moist, and basked in the gentle contrast of its earthy spice rub and a sweet peach chutney. The massive ribeye steak from Meyer Ranch in Montana was undercooked, but the spice-rubbed meat was profoundly tender and buttery.

One Bell – Hit Or Miss

City Grange [Philadelphia Inquirer]

Silk City

Silk City Diner

Photo by Ryan Charles

It’s been a case of revolving chefs at Silk City since it opened but hopefully there’s some stability now and the kitchen can start clicking on all cylinders.

So it was back to chicken wings-by-the-pound on Oct. 1 with a brand-new chef, Matt Ball, formerly of Deuce. He has largely taken his cues from Dunmire’s earlier menu – and those plump and crispy wings, glazed in a buttery hot sauce that tickles your nose with vinegary heat, are worth the encore. But Ball has also added his own nice twists.

His “ultimate BLT” is exactly the kind of comfort-food upgrade that Silk City needs – true in spirit to classic Americana, but amplified by a clever touch and better ingredients. From the boar bacon and rustic bread to the layer of fried green tomatoes with spicy sriracha mayonnaise, every element recalls the original but delivers a deeper, more savory resonance.

Silk City’s best dishes are the starters, like the quesadillas stuffed with tender pulled BBQ pork and crunchy pickles(!), empanadas stuffed with chipotle-braised chicken, heartily spiced chili, and excellent calamari and rock shrimp fried in a cornmeal crust. The Thai-styled baby back ribs were also great, slicked with a sweet chile sauce and peanuts.

Two Bells – Very Good

Silk City [Philadelphia Inquirer]
Silk City [MySpace]
Silk City Diner [Official Site]

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